Wizard lore and the singlehanded sailor

Harry Potter’s wand chose Harry Potter. Everyone knows this.

So, is it beyond the reach of imagination to suppose that the boat chooses the skipper? Because to some of us, boats are not like cars or washing machines. Boats are not things. If you don’t believe that a boat enters enter into a partnership with her skipper – particularly the singlehanded skipper – then you have not sailed a long distance singlehanded.

Read Joshua Slocum. Read Bernard Moitessier. Read Ellen MacArthur… These sailors understood that it wasn’t just them sailing the boat. The boat herelf had an input. Indeed, when the skipper was exhausted and unable to make sensible decisions then it would be the boat that would take over and ensure that they both survived.

Of course, this is not something you would want to rely on – like the Winnibago owner of legend who set the cruise control and went to make a sandwich (and then sued the manufacturers when the thing drove off the road). In fact I would suggest it is possible that peculiar instances of a boat appearing to take over might occur two or three times before the more logical type of sailor can bring themselves to talk about it. But in the annals of singlehanding, there are just too many accounts of unexplained good fortune for it to be a coincidence.

There I was sailing across the Grand Banks in not the best of visibility. It was 1988, so radar was a luxury but I did have a gadget which was supposed to detect radar signals from other vessels. It was very expensive and the box made it sound tremendously clever – but I had never known it to work. Meanwhile the Aries windvane steering was in command and I was asleep with the alarm set for 20 minutes.

This had been going on for 12 hours or more and I was heartily sick of the incessant hopping up and down. There was never anything there – all day long, just an opaque grey curtain about a mile away. Now, in pitch darkness, it was like being in another dimension – no stars, nothing to distinguish the sea from the sky. Just a faint glow of phosphorescence in the wake and only the rustle under the bow to show that we were slipping along nicely at three knots.

And now the alarm. The kitchen timer was on the other side of the cabin. It wasn’t going to stop until I got up. Of course, being so well used to this incessant beeping, I experienced a certain satisfaction in lying there and putting up with it.

And then the boat lurched. After a while you get to recognise a lurch. It can be from the sudden shallow water. It can be a whale surfacing alongside (although it’s more the fishy smell that gets you with that.)

It can also be the wake of a passing ship.

Very close.

Suddenly, framed in the companionway – filling it with a blaze of light – was a Grand Banks trawler, the stern filled with men in filthy oilskins staring out into the darkness.

And then, as they watched, the boat swung back onto her course. I looked at the compass. Good Lord, we had been off course. That was why we passed across the fisherman’s stern, not his bow. In fact, we must have been off course by as much as 30 degrees just when it made the difference between being rammed and being an object of curiosity for the crew during a long night gutting cod.

And how was that possible? On a calm night with a steady breeze, for the windvane suddenly to bear away by that much – and, more to the point, resume the course once the danger was past? On a scale of weirdness, this was right up there with abominable snowmen and Morris Dancing.

I reckon I know because the same sort of thing happened once in the Chenal du Four when the fog came down in the middle of tricky bit – and on the way to the Azores when it would have been just as easy to sail into the enormous, rusty structure floating just beneath the surface instead of so close past it that I could see the little crabs scuttling about on the long fronds of seaweed.

I know what the cynics will say – that there are just as many examples of singlehanded sailors who perish with their boats. The cynic might argue that all of this is just the Law of Averages mixed up with an unhealthy dose of Wishful Thinking.

But I believe it happens.

And I believe it’s happening again.

One Response to Wizard lore and the singlehanded sailor

  • I like the way you write. It flows nicely and I get to feel the essential feel of the sea. Thankyou.

Choosing an anchor

If you buy an old boat, the chances are you are going to buy an old anchor.

I happen to think it’s something to get excited about – the fact that my “new” boat, Samsara, is 44 years old. At that age, a boat is ageing gracefully and improving in those important ways that people so often ignore – steadfastness, dependability…

Since I have been telling people that I have bought a Rival 32 again, I have been overwhelmed with comments such as “lovely boats” and “she’ll look after you…”

And she comes with an antique anchor: A venerable 35 lbs CQR which has served her well through all her adventures on both sides of the Atlantic.

After all, in 1973, the CQR was the anchor of choice for the cruising yachtsman – actually, there wasn’t much choice. That and a Danforth kedge seemed to see most people through most situations. But times have moved on. We now have the New Generation Anchors – and in any comparison test you care to look at, the dear old CQR comes out very poorly. The main problem is that you have to drag it around the anchorage before it will set  – which may have been fine when anchorages were less crowded but try that in the Newtown River on a Saturday night and you’ll be very unpopular.

These days there are anchor manufacturers who claim their product will set in less than a metre.

Besides, the hinge on the old CQR had experienced 35 years of wear and – while there was still plenty of “drop-forged steel” to hold it together – I suspect that the geometry has gone to pot, making setting even more of a problem.

So I did my research and I’ve gone for a New Zealand-designed Rocna.

The next choice was the size. According to the company’s chart, the 15kg would be ample – that’s 33lb. The trouble was, my eye kept sliding across to the next column, the 20kg (44lb). For a 32ft boat, that would be considered a storm anchor.

It is argued that boats heading for extended cruising should carry a storm anchor. It is also argued that by the time you realise you should have set the storm anchor, it will not be a very good moment to try and do so. You will sleep a lot better if you know it’s down there already.

So it was back onto Google for more research. This was when I stumbled on advice from the Rocna people saying they discourage going up a size. They had already factored in everything the prudent yachtsman would need for peace of mind.

So I called up Pirates Cave to order the 15kg.

“There’s been a run on them,” said Nathan. “In fact, our supplier – the only supplier in the UK – won’t be getting any until September.”

That was no good. I needed to get the new bow roller measured – and the piece of stainless steel to protect the hull where the tip will rest…

“I can do the 20kg,” said the voice on the other end. “I can get that out to you today…”

In end it doesn’t look out of place on the bow – and best of all, it might have been made for its passage-making stowage in the fo’c’sle.

A thing of beauty…

Well that’s settled then: The new propeller is going under water.

I wanted to keep it on the saloon table as a conversation piece but Paul the engineer started talking about stepped key material and I lost my enthusiasm for argument.

However, you must agree that the new prop is a thing of beauty: A hand-crafted (individually made to order) Featherstream from Darglow, it looks like something you buy at a private viewing in one of those little galleries between Soho and Mayfair – and then take it home to be the centrepiece for the dining table so people can exclaim!

However, as I say, I lost the argument – and reasonably so: After all, I’m told it will give me an extra 10% of speed. That means a ten-day trip to the Azores suddenly becomes nine days.

Of course,  I could get the same effect by buying a new genoa. But how much would that cost? And how long would it last?

So spending more than £1,000 on a propeller doesn’t seem quite so mad after all. People spend a lot more buying a Monet.

It’s just that they don’t keep it under water…

Gaining access

The final payment had just about cleared. There was not a mark on the gelcoat and the first barnacle had yet to think about testing the antifouling.

With a certain ceremony, the new owner removed the colour-coordinated cover from the wheel, spun it experimentally – and then swore as it bounced back and attempted to snap off his thumb.

He tried it the other way.  He tried it both ways. He peered over the stern into the murky waters of the tide-locked marina. Something was preventing the wheel from turning.Now you don’t want to cause a fuss at this point – not as a new owner who hasn’t even made a start on the pile of instruction manuals.  But this was a brand new boat – just out of the box as it were – the wheel should turn… shouldn’t it? The wheel clamp was off, the self-steering disengaged. So what was stopping it?

Just as well it had happened now rather than half a mile outside the fairway buoy…

The owner looked around the cockpit for some sort of access hatch to the steering gear. There were the hatches to the aft cabins, port and starboard, a flap for the fresh water shower on the swimming platform, another for the bilge pump and  – oh, look, here was the cockpit entertainment system… He could blast Rod Stewart into a lovely secluded cove with that…

He did find the head of the rudder stock, neatly hidden beneath a flush-fitting circular cap and he found the emergency tiller under the navigator’s seat – just no access to the steering gear itself.

Eventually, after a rather sheepish phone call to the Sales Department (hate to bother you… sure it’s something really simple… awfully grateful if…) a young man with a toolbag arrived from the yard’s engineering department. He swung himself down into the starboard aft cabin: “No, no trouble at all. Soon have you on your way…”

He swung himself down into the port aft cabin. The owner found him there ten minutes later, sitting on the edge of the double berth surrounded by squashed memory foam and discarded locker lids, talking into his mobile and saying: “No, the headboard’s part of the bulkhead… ”

It was late the next day that instructions arrived from the builders in France: “Cut an access hatch in the stern.”

I was told this story by the shipwright who came to remove my stanchions. You never think you’ll have to remove stanchions, do you? But after 44  years, the wire begins to wear away at the holes, the surveyor takes note and the insurance company insists – even though the wear is on the inside.  But would you believe we took eight of them out – 24 nuts which hadn’t moved in almost half a century.

Oh, we did collect a very nice little pot of screws as headlinings came down, tiny hatches opened in places nobody had ever thought about. In short, we had access.

I like to think that this is because that’s the way they built boats in 1973 but in fact, it has just as much to do with a previous owner who remodelled the cabin in the 1990’s. He screwed a little plaque to the bulkhead to commemorate the work – and very rightly so: He did a beautiful job. He took the boat sailing for years at a time – the Caribbean, up the East Coast of the USA  – and all the while, he was thinking: “What we need is a handhold here… it would be really useful to have somewhere to put a pen-torch you could reach from your bunk – and thinking of bunks, why not arrange things so you can change the width from plenty of room in harbour to nice and snug for rolling down the trades…”

In fact, he thought of almost everything.  What he failed to consider was the possibility that one day his boat would fall into the hands of someone who didn’t want yacht legs.

Yacht Legs are a wonderful invention if you really want to sit on the sand but how often will I want to do that? And think of the room they take up and the astonishing amount they weigh?

So I set to removing the ugly corroded fittings on the rubbing strake. Down came the headlining again, out came the fridge and the fitted lockers.

In the end, it was the safe that stumped me (yes, the boat has a safe). Quite sensibly it was not installed with a view to being removed.

So yes, we now have two small access hatches high up on each side of the saloon.

At least they’re on the inside.